Category Archives: Painting

Visions of Sugarplums

Georg Flegel Dessert Still Life, early 1600sFrom the looks of the mouse, he couldn’t be more fortunate sitting among the confectionery; after all, the small creature, like many of us, is known to have a bit of a sweet tooth. We’ve seen what happens “if you give a mouse a cookie.” But here on the tabletop in the early 1600s, instead of chocolate chips, he’s tempted by “ragged” comfits—short ribbons of cinnamon with some twenty coats of a sugar syrup that makes them look like those Styrofoam packing peanuts—and sugarplums, round and oval, often made of dried figs and almonds, flavored with anise and cardamom, in a labor-intensive process to develop their hard candy shells.[1] Before this mouse, however, begins to enjoy himself with an espresso to wash it all down, there’s something that might give him pause if he understood his hapless role in seventeenth-century people’s spiritual outlook.

The painter, Georg Flegel, who is considered to be “the most important representative of early German still lifes,” used sugar in place of honey as the symbol of “spiritual sweetness” and, to my mind, went a bit crazy.[2] His Dessert Still Life painting must be one of the most overarching displays of religious symbolism ever, in which the open walnut, we’re told, according to St. Augustine, is a symbol of Christ, the shell suggesting the “wooden cross” and the nutmeat, Christ’s “divinity.”[3] Flegel then added a wine glass and a bunch of grapes to underscore the Eucharist; a white carnation as an emblem from the Middle Ages for Christ on the cross, the flower’s petals resembling the nails; and coins to remind us of Judas’s “betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.” The painter also tossed into a bowl additional nuts and figs, dusted with sugar, to represent a wealth of religious principles. Not quite done, he introduced into the painting its two most arresting subjects: a green parrot and a gray mouse. Their own symbolism Flegel makes clear: Look who’s been assigned to stand guard over the bowl-full of “spiritual values” and look who’s snuck in to gnaw on the “cross.” The mouse has been freighted with sin. Once again.

Nevertheless, the superabundance of theological allusions might just be ‘icing on the cake.’ Dessert Still Life points to Europeans’ passion at the time for sugar—a luxury item which they had recently imported from Brazil—as well as their appreciation for Flegel’s artistry. In today’s context, his depiction of the mouse appears not at all evil but innocent—and surely with visions of sugarplums dancing in his head.



[1] Historic Foods

[2] Norbert Schneider, Still Life, Taschen, 1990, trans. by Hugh Beyer.

[3] For a complete discussion of religious symbolism in Flegel’s paintings, see Schneider, ibid.

(Image: Dessert Still Life, oil on board, early 17th century, 22 x 28 cm)

Southern Comfort

The Surprize, 1871, William Aiken WalkerIn 1871 a mouse ran onto the palette of William Aiken Walker and posed at the edge in front of dabs of lead white, Van Dyke Brown and vermillion. Witnessing the tiny creature’s bustle was the painter himself. Now inspired, Walker picked up his brush and transformed the moment into oil on board, measuring 12 x 16 inches. The Surprize [sic] is complete with the small rodent’s tail colored red from his shortcut through the vermillion.[1] Walker would go on to paint Old Shoe with Mice, in which a handful of critters gnaw holes in the footwear’s leather. And in 1872, Walker showed more mice, this time on a tabletop, joyfully devouring fruit and crackers; he called that painting A Free Lunch. Four years later, hungry mice still seemed to be on Walker’s mind when he painted another group feasting on a generous wedge of cheese, fruit and nuts. Still Life with Cheese, Bottle and Mouse—with the cheese, a common symbol for longevity, now half-eaten—ostensibly sounds like the stuff of a vanitas, an homage perhaps to the seventeenth century Dutch artists as Walker had recently spent time in Europe visiting artists studios, galleries and museums, looking at works “on which he based [several of] his own still-life paintings.”[2] But from all appearances the rodents of this Charleston, South Carolina-born painter were not, as they were in Holland, reminders of the impermanence of earthly life as much as they were reminders of the mouse’s sybaritic nature.

But why, we might ask, would the quintessential artist of the South—allegedly a bit of a dandy who became recognized as one of the most important Southern genre painters with his oft-controversial homey depictions of African-American sharecroppers[3]—take time to portray over and over the tiny rodent?

His preoccupation with mice appears to be a perpetuation of the subject matter that he painted in his teens and his early twenties prior to the Civil War, when he exhibited works of animals, fish and fowl, chickens and cows, and portraits of dogs. The artist’s biographers note that Walker’s visual narratives of mice “reflect his interest in the insignificant as well as his quiet sense of humor.”[4]

On the other hand, inasmuch as he was an artist, he was also a savvy businessman ready to meet his clients’ demands. From Baltimore to Alabama, New Orleans to North Carolina, Tallahassee to Tennessee he roamed the South, painting “postcards” with scenes of everyday life. And so it was almost inevitable he would find a market for his mice. A Free Lunch was turned into a lithograph by the famed printers Currier & Ives, speaking to the image’s immense popularity. In the meantime The Surprize sold to a private collector for $15.00.



[1] August P. Trovaioli, Roulhac Toledana, William Aiken Walker: Southern Genre Painter, 2nd edition, Pelican Press, 2008. (1st edition, University of Louisiana Press, 1972).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Criticism revolves around the absence in Walker’s plantation paintings of any signs of the injustices that the sharecroppers had to endure. The laborers appear as happy as the skies under which they pick cotton. John Michael Vlach, “Perpetuating the Past: Plantation Landscape Paintings Then and Now,” in Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art, eds. Angela D. Mack, Stephen G. Hoffius, University of South Carolina Press, 2008.

[4] Trovaioli, Toledana, op. cit.

Additional source: Cynthia Seibels, The Sunny South: The Life and Art of William Aiken Walker, Saraland Press, 1995.

(Image: The Surprize, 1871, oil on board, 12 x 16 in., private collection.)

Apologia pro vita sua

George Grosz Mouse sketchbook, 1950-1952Mice as subject matter may have been light-years away from the artist’s early, caustic vision of his native Germany between the wars. Yet in the years, 1950-1951, he drew sixteen rodents in the pages of what he called his “Mäusezeichbuch,” his mice drawing book. Several are pinned in the once ubiquitous snap traps—regrettable blows of reality—that have left art historians guessing. Did the artist discover in the mouse a “discourse on nature and the past?” Or did he, now a naturalized American, revel in the post-WWII political irony of the trap’s trademark name, Victor?[1]

Considered “one of the twentieth century’s greatest satirists,” a Hogarth by way of Goya, George Grosz was shaped by both the obscene death and destruction he witnessed serving in the Kaiser’s war and the corrosive contradictions of the subsequent Weimar Republic. He portrayed lust and violence, at once ribald and revolting, as political power’s helpmates; his caricatures lacerated German society: the Church, the Military and the Bourgeoisie. Obese and porcine. Mere gatherings of empirical evidence. “I spared no one…I considered myself a natural scientist,” he wrote in his autobiography.[2] Yet he recognized that he was but both sides of the same proverbial coin. “I was everybody I depicted: the rich, gorging, champagne-guzzling man favored by fate, as well as the one out there holding out his hand in the pouring rain.”[3] While the streets of Berlin simmered, Grosz’s art soon made his name in America, the land of his boyhood dreams, the land of James Fenimore Cooper’s Mohicans; a hair’s breadth before the Reichstag went up in flames, Grosz accepted an invitation to teach in New York, arriving in 1933.

Sought-after at the Art Students League, however, wasn’t a balm to the realization that his satiric work was now viewed as outdated and depressing, crowded out by abstract expressionism. Like a wind-up toy he shuffled around, looking for his artistic soul. He turned back to the works of the old masters, Pisanello and Dürer, studying the way they painted animals, a duck, a young hare, a couple of squirrels… Later, in his acceptance speech for a gold medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Grosz spoke about “the limitations of satire and desire to be an artist of nature.” The writer Ian Buruma describes Grosz’s talk: “It is a cry from the heart, a desperate apologia pro vita sua, but the audience thinks he is clowning, and interrupts his speech with howls of laughter….”[4]

To the mice, nature morte, Grosz applied the unvarnished truth, much as he did in his earlier illustrations. The creatures are meticulously rendered, “life-size”—their fur defined by each hair, their tiny paws rigid, their eyes unseeing.


[1] See Beeke Sell Tower’s essay “Of Mice and Manhattan: Sketchbook 1950/7 in the Fogg Art Museum,” The Sketchbooks of George Grosz, ed. Peter Nisbet (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Art Museums, 1993), 122-126.

[2] George Grosz, George Grosz: An Autobiography, trans. Nora Hodges (New York: Macmillan, 1983), 125.

[3] Ibid., p. 125.

[4] Ian Buruma, “George Grosz’s Amerika,” The New York Review of Books, July 13, 1995, 25.

(Image: Two Dead Mice; verso: blank page, 1950-1951; Drawing, Sketchbook Page; Graphite on off-white wove paper, 6 x 9 3/16 in., Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Anonymous gift in gratitude for the friendship and kindness of Dean Wilbur Joseph Bender, 1955.95.21, for non-commercial purposes only.)


From Here to Modernity

Shibata Zeshin Mouse, ca 1870Shibata Zeshin painted them in groups, in threesomes and twosomes, and one by one; he painted one as a monk, another on the shoulder of the god Daikokuten. Mice it seems were a favorite motif. Perhaps his affection for them was inspired by his early studies at Kyoto’s Maruyama-Shijo school of art where he was taught in the tradition of its founder, the celebrated eighteenth century artist Maruyama Okyo who worked from nature. Or perhaps it was a hidden message of support for the merchant class in feudal Japan—mice the ever-familiar token of prosperity.

Considered “history’s greatest lacquer artist,” Shibata Zeshin has the added distinction of being one of the first Japanese artists who became known in the West while alive.[1] He began his training in the arts in 1817 at age eleven. Along with instruction in traditional painting he apprenticed to a lacquer maker; he learned the complexities of the centuries-old craft, mastered the urushi—or the sap collected from the commonly called lacquer trees—that involved no less than thirty-three stages.[2] He became a leading lacquerer of trays and boxes and sword mounts, embedding them according to convention with bits of mother-of-pearl and gold and silver leaf. And in the 1840s when the shoguns decried precious metals in decorative works (“wasteful!” they said), like a politician he spun the bad news into good. He created lacquer techniques that simulated “rusty iron” and oxidized bronze.

Though by the fall of 1868, as any student of Japanese history knows, the shoguns had been toppled, the feudal class exhausted. The Meiji restoration displaced the Edo era. Japan opened its ports, and with the flood of visitors in their western garb Japanese traditional arts began to feel a tug. Their practitioners were left divided between those who accused their fellow artists of pandering to the West and the fellow artists who, in turn, criticized those who remained unbending in the winds of change.

Zeshin, however, soared above the squabble, buoyed by his constant craving for creative innovation. He gave lacquer a whole new purpose. Drawn to European oil paintings, which had begun to trickle into Asia, he was seduced by their rich hues, the startling contrasts in tones. In one fell swoop he merged the East and the West. He took the viscous resin and turned it into a painting medium, finding the right additives to increase its fluidity. He painted with the lacquer on panels and on paper exhilarating colors that had heretofore not been seen; yet, as opposed to many Meiji period painters, he stayed loyal to traditional subject matter, and to his best-loved leitmotif, the mouse.


[1] Joe Earle, “The Genius Of Japanese Lacquer: Masterworks by Shibata Zeshin,” Japan Society articles.

[2] Ibid.

Additional sources: Roderick Conway Morris, “The Meiji Crisis in Japanese Art,” New York Times, March 27, 2013; Robert O. Jacobsen, “Shibata Zeshin and the Art of Urushi-e,” The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin, 63 (1976-1977): 4-21; Joe Earle, Meiji No Takara: Treasures of Imperial Japan Masterpieces by Shibata Zeshin (The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Japanese Art), London: The Kibo Foundation, 1996.

(Image: Mouse, circa 1870, 19.4 x 16.8 cm, Lacquer on paper, The British Museum.)

“Even in Arcadia there am I”

Guercino Et in Arcadia Ego, c. 1618Imagine this opening scene: a couple of shepherds minding their business, that is to say minding their flock—certainly bucolic if not a bit soporific, counting sheep and all. Their only source of excitement is in an errant lamb or in the capriciousness of the clouds. Later heading home the shepherds agree, let’s take a new path, really shake things up today. They no sooner round a wooded bend than they run smack into a tomb, topped with a moldering skull peering in their direction and a mouse—that constant gnawer of time—gnawing on “death’s head.” And just in case the shepherds didn’t get the message, inscribed on the stone is “Et in Arcadia Ego,” the Grim Reaper’s memo that he is among them in their idyllic setting.

Et in Arcadia Ego is a painting of Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, the seventeenth century Italian artist who went by the diminutive Guercino for the “guercio,” the squint due to his immobile right eye. He painted the memento mori in 1618 – 1622, or so, interrupted by various commissions, altarpieces for churches, frescoes for private villas. He was largely self-taught, apprenticing with a couple of painters from Cento, his Emilia-Romagna hometown. The painter Ludovico Carracci, of the famed Carracci workshop, called the twenty-six year old Guercino “[a] prodigy of nature and a wonder capable of astounding all who see his works.”[1] While we’re told his style over time radically changed—from the dramatic Caravaggio-esque chiaroscuro in tone and theme to a paler palette filled with classical restraint—his life, but for a two-year sojourn to Rome, working on commissions for Pope Gregory XV and his family, stayed much the same. He never married, lived in Cento, maintained his workshop, and spent the last two decades of his life in neighboring Bologna where he assumed the role of Bologna’s leading painter when Guido Reni died in 1642. Carlo Cesare Malavasia, the seventeenth century writer, noted in his history of Bolognese paintings that Guercino prodigiously painted 144 works and 106 altarpieces for princes and popes, kings and queens and diplomats across Italy and France, England and Spain.

Back in 1618 the shepherds’ day in Arcadia was, however, not quite done; Guercino appears to have given the story an alternative ending—or perhaps the artist was simply experimenting, borrowing from himself. Instead of stumbling upon Death’s dreary reminder, the skull and the mouse, those same two shepherds, in the same garb, in the same composition, have come up on Apollo flaying the satyr Marsyas. No matter the scene, Et in Arcadia Ego or Apollo and Marsyas.[2] What a downer the day has become, the young men seem to be thinking.


[1] “Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri): Samson Captured by the Philistines (1984.459.2)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (September 2008).

[2] Apollo and Marsyas was commissioned by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, collection at Galleria Palatina, Pitti Palace, Florence.

Additional sources: William M. Griswold, “Guercino.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 48, no. 4 (Spring, 1991); Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, University of Chicago Press, 1983.

(Image: Et in Arcadia Ego, c. 1618, Oil on linen, 78 x 89 cm., collection Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Palazzo Barberini, Rome.)

Up Close and Personal

Close Mouse 2009, Trey FriedmanTrey Friedman took out his camera. He had set up a miniature photography studio on the dining table, smack in the middle of it. He had fashioned a small box with a Plexiglas front, and mounted lights on either side, and inside, attached a backdrop of white seamless paper. His subject for his shoot was waiting within easy reach. A deer mouse who had made a wrong turn into a live trap. He wanted to photograph him, reference shots from which to sketch.

As you might expect, the mouse didn’t behave—or rather he did behave like a mouse. He scurried back and forth, drummed his front paws, stood up on his hind legs, looking for a way to escape. And when he calmed down, he crouched in a corner, his back toward the lens. But with patience and a fast shutter, Friedman was able to capture him in a variety of poses.

For years the artist had been trying to find a way to paint the wildlife. It was a natural extension of the theme that has thread throughout his figurative works and landscapes since he started painting in his early teens: the discomfort of man at the edge of the forest, the mess we make in trying to tame the wilderness. But he always ended up omitting any creatures. He argued that we couldn’t really see animals—as our equals with whom we share the land; that we are blinded by the sheer ubiquity of images and by our perceptions and by our fears, by the kitsch, the cuddly and the fierce, the symbolism and the metaphor. Then upon meeting a wildlife rehabilitator he saw an opportunity to show not only the adverse effect of man’s relationship with nature but the unanticipated benefit as well. Through a series of paintings of mammals who were being rehabilitated, having been hit by a car, having lost their mother or their habitat, their tree chopped down, he could give them the prominence they deserved, an animal-centric motive for representation—Chuck Close-up-close style, enormous portraits centered on paper.

A couple of squirrels, an opossum, a baby raccoon, and a small brown bat, each with his/her own tale. And the deer mouse. The oil paintings were completed, framed and hung in the studio.

The reaction was like the brittle leaves in the fall.

His dealer said, “You know…these are not for our clients.” The rehabber lamented, “Oh, I thought the paintings were going to be bigger.” A friend laughed nervously, facing one of the squirrels, “It’s staring at me.” The distinguished elder art patron told Friedman he admired his clear and unwavering intention in his art and his solid technique, and added, “I can see what you are doing here. But animals—” The patron’s wife joined in, “The eyes! They’re frightening!”

It wasn’t that these individuals couldn’t see the animals but that the animals could see them.



Further sources: Trey Friedman website; Gallery Henoch.

(Image: Close Mouse, 2009, Oil on paper, 32 x 24 in. courtesy of the artist, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

Before and After

MG38411The most unexpected thing about Fable is not the mice and the lion, the storks and the fox, all juxtaposed with the oddly parked goddess-like figure in the center of the canvas; nor the fact the work was painted in Austria in 1883, when modernism in art had already grabbed a nearby nation by her toes, but the name of the painter who made it. He, none other than Gustav Klimt; he, of the luminous images of female figures, sometimes a couple, afloat in a confetti parade of gold and silver leaf—such as the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I and The Kiss. But with Klimt, like so many, Picasso and  Dalí among them, his early works belie what the artist had in store.

Two decades before he saw the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, Italy, that would help to define his ‘golden phase,’ Klimt, the young man, idolized Hans Makart, nineteenth-century Vienna’s celebrated ‘Painter Prince’—so-called for his self-styled ostentatiousness, a dandy who liked to parade around in historical dress. Makart was, it seems, an Andy Warhol of his day, his studio a meeting place for the Austrian capital’s bold-faced names. And Klimt, an art student, eagerly looked on, even resorted to bribing, it’s rumored, Makart’s servant to let him into the master’s atelier to study his work, his florid historicism—the then in-vogue artistic expression of emulating periods of the past—that brought the elder painter fame.

And so when the Viennese publisher Martin Gerlach invited the nineteen-year-old Klimt, nearing the end of his training at the School of Arts and Crafts, to contribute drawings and paintings to what would become Gerlach’s distinguished three-volume set, titled Allegories and Emblems, with its intended goal to rekindle the myth and symbolism of Renaissance and Baroque art, Klimt naturally looked to his hero, to Makart’s style for one of his eleven allegorical contributions.

Fable stands among her characters, and at closer inspection the subject matter doesn’t seem quite as static or as stolid as the painting initially suggests; you might even consider Klimt was creating a bit of sequential art. Two fables in a single visual narrative: the before and the after. On the left are the mice, caught in the midst of scurrying about, grooming one another, looking suspicious, a moment before one of them clumsily runs across the nose of the sleeping lion and awakens him; Fable’s lesson is yet to be learned. On the right are the storks and the fox, clearly in the aftermath of the stork’s retaliation to the fox’s mean-spirited dinner invitation; Fable’s wagging finger: Do no harm—if someone does get hurt, then turn-about is fair play.[1] An apt moral, perhaps Klimt found, for every ambitious painter.


[1] Laura Gibbs, “The Fox and the Stork,” Aesop’s Fables, Oxford World’s Classics, New York, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 81.

Additional sources: Albert Ilg, “Preface,” Allegories and Emblems, Martin Gerlach, ed., Vienna: Gerlach and Schenk, 1882; Susanna Partsch, Gustav Klimt: Life and Work, Kent, UK: Grange Books, 1999.

(Image: Fable, 1883, Oil on canvas, 84.5 x 117 cm, Wien Museum, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

36 Union Square

In 1930 Arshile Gorky moved into a new studio at 36 Union Square. Situated on the second floor with long windows, overlooking Manhattan’s 16th Street, the vast space, once a ballroom, seemed perfectly suited to a man who loved to play records of Armenian music and dance with a handkerchief between his fingers, waving it in the air. Visiting the studio for the first time, Willem de Kooning later recalled, he was “bowled over” by the beauty of the space, the meticulously arranged jars and pots and the black and white photographs.[1] Once a week Gorky would slide his enormous easel and his canvases, his art supplies and furniture from one side of the room to the other in order to wash the parquet floor with lye. The studio must have seemed light-years away from the small peasant village near Lake Van in the Armenian province of eastern Turkey where Gorky had been born and raised.

His road to becoming a seminal figure in American art’s gallop toward abstraction may seem an improbable one. He had arrived in the States ten years before, in 1920, at the age of eighteen, labeling himself an artist but having never studied art. While he took courses in Boston and subsequently in New York, Gorky was largely self-taught. He wandered around the museums and the galleries, absorbing everything he saw, prodigiously copying many of the works over and over. He flirted with post-Impressionism and Cubism and Surrealism; he called it his ‘apprenticeship.’ He borrowed and borrowed for his art and “spoke with scorn of ‘originality’ as a criterion of artistic value.”[2] He told the famed dealer Julien Levy, “I was with Cézanne for a long time . . . and now naturally I am with Picasso.” To which Levy replied, I’ll give you an exhibition “someday, when you are with Gorky.”[3]

Now settled in his Union Square studio, he took a moment to consider the works of his friend Stuart Davis, who had just asked Gorky to write an article about Stuart’s art. A series of drawings Davis had made a few years earlier of a pressed-tin eggbeater tacked to a board, in which he outlined the empty areas around the object as if they were objects themselves, projecting outward—”tangible spaces,” Gorky called them—had left a deep impression on him.[4] That may have been what he was thinking about when he decided to incorporate a piece of cheese into a collage—a variation perhaps for his own series he would call Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia, a composition of ‘interlocking shapes.’ But alas the work would remain incomplete. In spite of the tidiness of his new digs Gorky had an unexpected guest while he was sleeping. He woke the next morning to find the collage had been rearranged. A mouse had taken the cheese. Gorky flew into a rage; he shouted, who moved my cheese? (Well, maybe not exactly those words.)



[1] As told to Matthew Spender, From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky, 1999.

[2] Peter Schjeldahl, “Twentieth-Century Man: An Arshile Gorky Retrospective,” The New Yorker, November 2, 2009.

[4] Spender, op. cit.

Additional sources: Holland Cotter, Art Review: ‘Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective’,” New York Times, October 22, 2009; Hayden Herrera, Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work, 2003, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

(Image: Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia, 1931-32, by Arshile Gorky, Pen, brush, black and brown ink on Strathmore white paper, 18 3/16 x 24 5/16 in, Yale University Art Gallery, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

War between cats and mice

On a plateau high in the Austrian Alps, just beyond the tiny village of Pürgg, sits Johanneskapelle (or the Chapel of St. John). A small Romanesque building, almost windowless and fairly austere—at least from the outside. Inside however is what makes it I read a popular tourist attraction. The chapel is lined from top to bottom with frescoes that date to 1165, and are today regarded as the best preserved murals in Europe. The painted symbols and scenes are to be expected, religious in nature: images of saints; the Nativity and the Annunciation; tales such as the miraculous multiplication of fish and loaves; as well as depictions of the chapel’s patrons, the abbott Gottfried I and the margrave of Styria Ottokar III. That is until you get to the south side of the nave. There is one small tableau that seems to not quite fit in; it shows a battle is being mounted—the mice are at war again. This time they’re standing on the ramparts of their castle, equipped with crossbows and arrows, readied to meet the armored feline enemy who is shown lurking below.

In truth not much is known about the War between cats and mice: neither its creator nor its meaning. The scholarly speculation is enough to make one’s head spin. Certain art historians have argued that the style of War and that of the rest of the frescoes are similar to the illumination of a particular bible made by a workshop in Salzburg; others have pointed to a liturgical book that establishes a strong ‘connection,’ and may have been, or not have been, penned by the scribe and artist named Liutold. Meanwhile scholars initially thought the battle scene was an illustration of the Byzantine writer Theodoros Prodromos’s twelfth-century poem in which the king of the mice called his people to take up arms against the cats because the cats had eaten some mice. But this literary notion was dismissed by those who wanted to see a straightforward allegory of good versus evil, despite the virtue/vice metaphor’s lack of visual clarity. After all who, the mouse or the cat, represents good and who represents evil? Who is the superhero?



Sources: Philipp Dollwetzel, “Die romanischen Wandmalereien in der Johanneskapelle in Pürgg-Trautenfels,” 2010, unpublished paper; C.R. Dodwell, The Pictorial Arts of the West, 800-1200, Yale University Press, 1993.

(Image: War between cats and mice (detail), fresco, mid-12th century, Johanneskapelle in Pürgg, Austria, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

“Appearances can be deceptive.”

What on earth does a contemporary Australian photo media artist have in common with an eighteenth century English painter? An inspection of Anne Zahalka’s photograph Untitled (mouse), with a bit of help from google, soon shows us the answer: a woman named Ann Ford. Thomas Gainsborough painted Miss Ford’s portrait in 1760; Zahalka appropriated it in 2001.

Since her graduate degrees in art, Zahalka had been mining the pages of art history to visually readdress works of the old masters, a post-modernist reaction to the way in which her predecessors depicted their subjects within the confines of traditional portraiture. In the mid-1980s the arc of her ideas began to form. The Australian artist first received broad recognition for her series Resemblance, photographic works where she restaged scenes found in iconic Northern European (15th – 17th century) paintings—such as Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait. From orchestrating the images of the Flemish and the Dutch, she turned to scanning old masters’ portraits, then set about rubbing out their subjects’ heads. In an interview she said, “By denying the significance of the face through its erasure, I wanted to show how the body, hands and objects continue to project character, power and meaning. This involved a stripping away so that the gesture might exist as a ‘sign.’”[1] But afterward she still saw, it seems, room for misinterpretation on part of the viewer. She noted, “We project onto portraits what we want to see.” And by 2001, she obliterated the gestures of the sitter as well; she cropped Ann Ford at her knees. She added an unexpected single element: a tiny white mouse.

If you take a peek at Gainsborough’s original you’ll see Miss Ford (later Mrs. Philip Thicknesse) surrounded by a stack of musical scores and a couple of stringed instruments. As proper and prim as she appears, we’re told the twenty-three-year-old English lady was not exactly a lady. In the eighteenth century she was considered a ‘demirep,’ or a woman with a ‘half-reputation.’ Miss Ford was notorious for being combative, for performing her viola da gamba in public; her father even had her arrested. Twice. Gainsborough himself inordinately talented and unconventional ‘expressed solidarity’ with her; he, with Miss Ford’s input, gifted her image with the very things that made her critics crazy: her music and her French dress; he posed her ‘unladylike,’ her legs are crossed. She was a young society woman who was “navigating a changing world through skill and wit,”[2]—a perfect segue I find, give or take a couple of centuries, to Zahalka and her Untitled (mouse). In the tiny rodent’s forthright yet halting presence the contemporary artist captures what Ann Ford represented without the need to see her face; the mouse too imbues the work with the bit of humor that Gainsborough’s painting has lost on us today.



[1] Naomi Cass, Director of the Centre of Contemporary Photography, in conversation with Anne Zahalka, “Hall of Mirrors, Anne Zahalka Portraits 1987-2007,” National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, Australia.

[2] Christopher Knight, “Art review: ‘Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman’ at the San Diego Museum of Art,” Los Angeles Times, February 23, 2011.

Additional sources: Anne Zahalka website; “Portrait Painting in England, 1600–1800,” Metropolitan Museum of Art; Exhibition Catalogue, “Objects In Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear: Anne Zahalka in Conversation With Curator Karra Rees,” 2007; Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.

(Image: Untitled (mouse), 2001, by Anne Zahalka, color print on canvas,
14 x 14 in., reproduced for non-commercial use only.)